The Island of Dr. Moreau

Pic by Tir-Nimphel

Published in 1896, the vision of H.G. Wells makes a show of those who seek to tamper with the forces of nature. His depiction of the outcome is solemn and depressing. The story is presented in the 1st person narrative and recounts the plight of a man, Edward Prendick, who begins by telling how he’s become stranded in the ocean from a shipwreck. His luck takes a turn when he is rescued by an illegally operating trade ship The Ipecacaunha en route to some unchartered island. Montgomery, one of the passengers aboard, happens to be a learned physician and nurses Prendick back to health. After resting and reawakening, Prendick begins to assess his new but curiously strange situation. The ship’s cargo of assorted animals, which includes most exclusively, a caged puma, doesn’t baffle him as much as the odd man he encounters with a muzzle for a nose, but the mystery grows as the cargo’s purpose remains unidentifiable and undisclosed by the ship’s crew.

A sense of cruelty interrupts the feeling of empathy that was earlier felt when Montgomery had worked to restore Prendick’s life. When the ship finally arrives to its destination, and after the cargo has been unloaded with Montgomery leading second in charge, Prendick is abandoned to the sea because no one will have him. Set adrift alone in a boat, his thoughts reencounter the dreadful feelings he thought he’d managed to escape. This atmosphere of indifference on behalf of the man who had just saved his life, who works in cohorts with some mysterious gray-haired man, essentially sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Prendick is relieved when the launch boat carrying the cargo turns to retrieve him, but his feeling of relief is soon replaced by apprehension as no one extends any real measure of hospitality. This state of discontent is furthered by the presence of human-like beings that work alongside the two men that Prendick realizes, are the only ones who appear to be actually human. These curious beings move about like humans, but carry the traits of zoo animals in their faces and bodies. Once on the island, Prendick is fixed with a room. He overhears Montgomery, who is apparently an assistant of some sort, utter the name “Moreau,” and a memory is triggered, one that causes Prendick to ascertain a morbid sense of dread. He knows of the name and of the questionable reputation associated with it, and he pieces together ideas that help him to comprehend what he’s encountered.

Dr. Moreau, as is learned, is something of a biomedical scientist with a penchant for cutting into animals while they are alive, a procedure roughly known as “vivisection.” The process, as H.G. Wells would have one understand, allows for the flesh to be cut in ways such that, after the healing takes place, the nature of the incisions permanently alter the shape of the body. The curious beings that Prendick has been seeing are Dr. Moreau’s creations, ghastly works that tell on his attempts to carve men out of animals. From this macabre perspective, Dr. Moreau’s work with the surgical knife, though he claims it the work of “science,” is also something of a hobby and art form, and the creatures he creates are his art. In relation to this activity, the narrative provides an ongoing reference to the puma that Prendick observed earlier. Unsatisfied with much of the work he’s accomplished, the puma is suspected to be Moreau’s master-work, but the incessant crying, yowling and groaning that perpetually blister the ears of Prendick gives one a lucid sense of the inhumanity involved with the way Moreau operates.

When the puma manages to escape is when the narrative begins to escalate towards a conclusion. Clearly incapable of tolerating the incisions any longer, as the thing had been cut up to the extent that Prendick actually thought it was a vivisected human, the cat breaks loose in a mad dash for freedom. Moreau in chase ends up with his head bashed in, and he is found dead on the jungle floor. Thus from the time he’s introduced to the time of his death, nothing is ever really static with Moreau’s character, except for the moment when he felt compelled to explain his work. Moreau is like a passing visage of psychological terror that evaporates into a pall of nothingness. What is much more static is the aftermath of solemnity that follows his departure.

The uninspiring assistant Montgomery realizes the futility of his life. He is killed in a drunken splendor amid a burst of festive activity with the men-beasts when he attempts to socialize with them. The event leaves Prendick in a startling, depressing state of destitution. As he’s on the beach, essentially alone, he and the men-beasts face each other. The true scope of their intelligence is revealed as this interaction exposes how they simply don’t know what to do. They appear to be in shock, or they are mystified; maybe they are incapable of interpreting the implications of the matter, but above all, they don’t act irrationally. Prendick addresses the situation, behaving in a way that a circus master would treat his animals, and the psychology of the men-beasts falls none other than to a state of compliance.

While the most compelling part of the story should be the carving of the puma and its daring escape, what’s even more compelling is the “reversion” that the men-beasts experience after Moreau’s death. Their taught behaviors dissipate, their animal instincts return, and the island thus becomes occupied by animal mutations that hobble about without goals or desires. Whether or not they ever had goals and desires is left to question, leaving one to speculate whether or not Moreau’s work was a bona fide effort to understand the ways of nature for the betterment of the world, or just a sick excursion in animal torture. What the reversion ultimately says, is that nature should be left to operate on her own, that the animal kingdom, when left to its own devices, has no quarrel with mankind. The cry of the puma, on the contrary, speaks of the great offense, the insensibility of the arrogance that lies at the heart of those who seek to infringe upon realms that do not belong to them.


Bartleby, the Scrivener

In Bartleby, the Scrivener, business sections of a city are unoccupied on the weekends, where ghosts seem to linger in the absence of thriving people, and stone prison walls surround the grounds of lush green grass. Crowds jeer and bosses become perplexed. Trips are taken and periods of time are spent sleeping nearly homeless, and cakes made of ginger spice are delivered during office hours. Most of the time jobs are getting done, and days are filled with the minutiae of men living out their lives according to the era by which they are governed.

But who is Herman Melville’s Bartleby? By the people who are near him on a daily basis, he is known as a strange man. By his boss, he was once profitable to have around, but eventually becomes useless. He has nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and retains the capability of standing in one place for hours. His behavior is ghostly, frightening even, resembling the symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia, yet when Bartleby is addressed, he’s able to provide coherent responses as necessary. Bartleby seems thunderstruck, but he is worse; he is uninterested. His coworker wants to punch him and his boss wants to get rid of him, but neither can fulfill their wishes.

The mundane scene of Bartleby’s new job reflects all too much the end of a destined path. Skylights in the ceiling illuminate blank walls and windows that once looked upon the backyards of the city are walled off by the red bricks of newly constructed buildings. Work desks piled with documents appropriately occupy the spaces of Bartleby’s job, the only real decoration being a “pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero,” but this commercial zone, inhospitable and unhomely as it is, is also where Bartleby takes up his residence. He might not understand the institution of family because he does not seem to care, and should someone ask him if he would like to have a family someday, he would probably say that he “would prefer not to.”

Bartleby is a frail man without any sense of purpose. Whatever purpose that may have driven him in the past has faded from him. His only thoughts rest with his inclination to have his new boss tolerate him for the duration of his life. His boss is disturbed by the matter, reflecting on the relationship he has with Bartleby with a vast perplexity that eventually dissipates to a state of melancholy despair. Bartlbeby is not a hostile man, but his increasing lack of drive represents a sort of  passive hostility. His boss cannot deal with the mental strain that Bartleby’s presence evokes, and he tries with great effort to separate himself from him. Yet Bartleby is a man, thus his inability to create a life for himself, and his need to rely on his boss for a place to inhabit, represents a symbol of humanity’s need. When these opposing forces clash, the secure boss with the insecure human, aspects of gentle humanity are beneath the surface, passively hostile.

The process of this maudlin activity leads to the inevitable. Sequence after sequence, Bartleby’s boss, with as much benignity of craft he can muster, terminates the relationship with his derelict employee. However, the guilt that haunts the realm of human consciousness, that which scours the essence of the soul for ways to eat at the heart, breaks the disconcerted boss down. It seems, after society has been forced to deal with Bartleby, his brute passivity failing to win favor with anyone, his boss is compelled to visit the man who has found his way into a prison. At first he feels inclined to help Bartleby through bribes to a prison cook, but the effort fails. Bartleby, coherent as he’s ever been, understands precisely where he is and proceeds to abstain from eating. A return visit presents the wide-eyed Bartleby lying motionless at the base of a prison yard wall.

Bartleby’s boss has not procured a victory for anyone, yet “the silent man” Bartleby has seemingly lost the game. His death is his only statement, the only thing that appears he would prefer to do, but this does not make anyone feel good, nor does it shed light on morality. The vapid soul that was Bartleby is now a specter of questions rising into the atmosphere of which no one among those who claim to be humane can answer.